The “USDA Organic” Label and Farm Animal Welfare

Animal Welfare In the  National Organic Program
Animal Welfare In the
National Organic Program

Read our report, written with Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Forward, to learn more about current organic animal welfare standards.

Among the overwhelming array of labels appearing on our food packages, “organic” is a claim that many conscientious consumers now seek out because they believe it indicates more responsible production practices. But when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy, shoppers concerned about animal welfare need to be aware of the label’s limitations.

What Does “Organic” Mean for Animal Welfare?

In order to use the USDA Organic Seal, meat, egg and dairy producers must follow production standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, these standards require that USDA Organic animals are:

  • Raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors
  • Fed organic feed
  • Not administered hormones or unnecessary antibiotics

Studies show [PDF] that consumers also assume that animals from organic farms had exposure to fresh air, vegetation and significantly more space to move than on standard, non-organic farms. In reality, the current standards do not provide clear requirements for either space or outdoor access for most animals.

As a result, some large, USDA Organic-certified producers are raising animals in conditions virtually indistinguishable from factory farming.

With the market for organic meat, eggs and dairy growing rapidly and more than 186 million animals’ lives at stake each year, the ASPCA has advocated strongly for the USDA to address this widening gap between consumer expectations and the reality on some organic farms.

What’s Happening Now?

Update: In November 2023, the USDA published the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) rule. The final OLPS rule cemented the long and hard work of countless animal advocates and higher-welfare farmers, finally improving the organic program’s animal welfare standards. Critical wins in the final rule include:

  • New indoor and outdoor space requirements for broiler chickens and egg laying hens
  • New requirements for meaningful outdoor access, including a prohibition on the use of concrete “porches” and soil and vegetation requirements
  • A prohibition on the use of gestation and farrowing crates for mother pigs
  • Limits on certain painful mutilations like tail-docking

The vast majority of the new welfare standards in the OLPS rule must be met by January 2, 2025, providing producers one year to come into compliance. However, the indoor and outdoor space requirements and outdoor soil and vegetation requirements for broiler chickens and egg-laying hens have a longer, 5-year compliance period with all organic chicken and egg producers required to meet the new standards by January 2, 2029.

For more details on the new rule and what it means for organic consumers seeking higher-welfare products, read our blog.

In August 2022, following more than a decade of work by the ASPCA and other groups, as well as by organic farmers themselves [PDF], the USDA released the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards proposed rule (“OLPS rule”)—a substantial overhaul of USDA Organic’s animal welfare standards that will help align the program with consumer expectations by adding the following critical protections and requirements for animals raised in the program:

  • Separate poultry, transport and slaughter standards
  • Easy access to the outdoors
  • Outdoor access requirements for all species
  • Indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry
  • Specific indoor enrichment requirements
  • Overarching pain control requirements

We are hopeful that these long-sought improvements to the USDA Organic program will be swiftly implemented, and we can’t afford to be passive about it. In 2017, a small number of producers and industry groups pressured the previous administration to derail the original rule. Even though more than 70,000 Americans spoke up against a proposed withdrawal, the USDA went forward anyway, and the rule was never put into effect. We can’t let that happen again.

In the fall of 2022, ASPCA advocates rallied to improve farm animal welfare, submitting more than 27,300 comments to the USDA. The comments were in response to the agency’s call for public input on the proposed organic animal-welfare rule.  The USDA will review comments before finalizing new organic animal-welfare standards.  

Until the USDA implements the OLPS rule, large, multinational corporations will continue to take advantage of loopholes in existing organic regulations. These loopholes enable companies to deceptively label cruel, factory-farmed products “organic” so well-intentioned and welfare-conscious consumers will purchase them. The lack of clear standards undermines consumer confidence in the organic label and undercuts organic farmers who are already raising animals more humanely.

To stay up to date on our efforts and ensure you can take action in the future when farm animals need you, please join our Advocacy Brigade.

Recent News:

ASPCA and 27,370 Advocates Demand Better for Animals on Organic Farms
November 2022

Act Now: Opportunity to Improve Welfare for Animals on Organic Farms
August 2022

USDA Commits to Taking Action on Inadequate Organic Welfare Standards
June 2021

ASPCA Urges Stronger Enforcement in Organic Foods Program
October 2020

The Battle to Ensure Protections for USDA Organic Animals
June 2020

ASPCA Joins Lawsuit Against USDA for Failing to Protect Organic Animals
April 2018

USDA Ignores Public Will, Kills the Organic Animal Welfare Rule
March 2018

ASPCA Joins Legal Fight Against USDA for Better Organic Farm Animal Welfare
March 2018

Walmart Sued for Deceiving Consumers about Organic Eggs
January 2018

USDA Flips the Kill Switch on Upgrades for Organic Animals—Fight Back!
January 2018

USDA Turns Its Back on Farm Animals: ASPCA Responds
December 2017

USDA Ignores 40,000+ Public Comments, Again Delays Organic Animal Welfare Rule
November 2017

USDA Receives Over 47,000 Comments in Response to Organic Rule Delay
June 2017

ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker weighs in on the USDA’s Senseless Obstacles to a More Humane “Organic”
May 2017

Breaking: USDA Derails Organic Welfare Rule
May 2017

National Organic Standards Board Champions Animal Welfare
April 2017

“Organic” Becoming a Stronger Label: A Victory Years in the Making
January 2017

USDA Proposes Historic Welfare Standards for Animals Raised Under the Organic Label
April 2016

ASPCA survey finds organic consumers believe the USDA Organic label means more for animal welfare than it does
April 2014